Tóibín being Tóibín.

Book Review by Frank O’Shea

A GUEST AT THE FEAST. By Colm Tóibín. Picador 2022. 305 pp. $34.99

Colm Tóibín is the current Laureate for Irish Fiction, succeeding Sebastian Barry. As part of that role, he will be expected to deliver a number of public lectures; it is not clear whether this book is part of his Laureate duties. Though I have reviewed more than half a dozen of his books, I note that many of those reviews have not appeared in this publication. My most recent one was The Magician, his study of Thomas Mann; two others of his books have been reviewed here by Steve Carey and James McCaughey. He is possibly the kind of writer who should be reviewed by academics, people who can read more deeply into his prose.

What we have here is a collection of 11 essays, ranging from 1995 to 2022, all but three of them from the London Review of Books. The opening essay is a kind of outsider, different from the others in that it is a personal account of his battle with cancer. He had a testicle removed and then had to undergo chemotherapy; the first part of that process was relatively easy, but his account of his chemotherapy treatment is quite frightening. His problems were not with his time in hospital, but the in-between weeks as he recovered. He does not make himself out as a hero and indeed there is almost a hint of someone being cranky with himself for being human.

The longest essay, the name of which is used as title for the book, is based on his thoughts about growing up in Enniscorthy in Co Wexford and his later education in St Peter’s College in the town that bears the county name. He will come back to that school more than once in later essays. 

One of the author’s early jobs was as editor of Magill magazine, following on from Vincent Browne who had taken over as editor of The Tribune. As editor, he had to deal with a major law case involving an article written by journalist June Levine about a man who was accused of rape. They lost the case, but won on appeal. For Tóibín, because it was ‘my first brush with the law, I grew interested in how the Supreme Court functioned.’ The remainder of that essay deals with that and introduces names like Barrington, O’Higgins, McCarthy, McWilliams, Henchy, Cearbhaill Ó Dálaigh and Rory O’Hanlon, names familiar to those who read newspapers at the time. He possibly identifies the liberals and the conservatives in that and a longer list, but it is not entirely clear who fits where. That essay, titled A Brush With The Law, first appeared in The Dublin Review in 2007.

The middle section of the book deals with the last three popes and ends with a treatment of the Ferns Report about priest abusers in Wexford. The central theme of the four chapters is homosexuality, the author declaring himself more than once to be gay. The Vatican, if one is to believe what Tóibín – and others – write, is a hotbed of homosexuals, many of them practising gay men. Different writers have put the percentage among the various priestly ranks in the Vatican, from cardinals to seminarians, as from 50 to 70 per cent.

What Tóibín writes about John Paul II, Benedict and Francis, reflects those numbers. The Polish background of the first is stressed, as is his firm opinions on women priests and relaxing of rules in the area of sexuality. In a chapter titled ‘Among the Flutterers’, the Benedict we read about – Ratzy for short – is presented as someone with a fondness for luxury and for designer clothing in prominent colours. The essay on Bergoglio deals in some length with his background in Argentina, particularly during and after what was known as the Dirty War. He was, apparently, second to Ratzy at the previous papal conclave, and has turned on the smile in all his appearances since his election. He also makes it clear that there is only one pope.

The last chapter in this section is about the Ferns Report of 2005 which dealt with the problems among a number of priests in that diocese and their abuse of young people of both genders. When he was a student at St Peter’s College, Tóibín knew three of those who would later achieve notoriety. He says that the new bishop of Ferns had asked him if any harm had come to him while he was at the school. ‘I was too embarrassed to tell him that not one of the priests had ever as much as fondled me either.’

The final section deals with three writers, the American Marilynne Robinson and the two Irish writers Francis Stuart and John McGahern. In each case, he examines their output as novelists and essayists. McGahern, with whom he was in close and friendly contact, is presented as the outstanding one of these, not afraid to criticise his own friends if he felt it necessary. 

However, the second of the three is the most interesting: a man born in Australia in 1902 who died in Dublin in 2000. A complex character, Stuart returned to Ireland with his mother after his father’s suicide. At the age of 17, he married Maud Gonne’s daughter Iseult; he was apparently abusive to her and eventually left her to live with Madeleine Meissner whom he married after Iseult’s death. Tóibín deals with the controversy when Stuart was made a Saoi in Aosdána, against a strong campaign led by Máire Mac an tSaoi. Much of the chapter is devoted to Stuart’s large number of novels, particularly Black List, Section H. His conclusion on Stuart is interesting:

… the following facts can be established: Stuart supported Hitler, he had anti-Semitic feelings, he broadcast extreme anti-British sentiments in the war, he abandoned his family. He later evaded the truth about all of this.

The author knew the people he writes about, including the popes and writes about them with care and balance. His accounts of their actions and their writings are sometimes complex and indeed there are places where the book reads like a learned academic treatise.

Frank is a member of the editorial team of Tinteán